The real Existential Risk we should be concerned about

JDN 2457458

There is a rather large subgroup within the rationalist community (loosely defined because organizing freethinkers is like herding cats) that focuses on existential risks, also called global catastrophic risks. Prominent examples include Nick Bostrom and Eliezer Yudkowsky.

Their stated goal in life is to save humanity from destruction. And when you put it that way, it sounds pretty darn important. How can you disagree with wanting to save humanity from destruction?

Well, there are actually people who do (the Voluntary Human Extinction movement), but they are profoundly silly. It should be obvious to anyone with even a basic moral compass that saving humanity from destruction is a good thing.

It’s not the goal of fighting existential risk that bothers me. It’s the approach. Specifically, they almost all seem to focus on exotic existential risks, vivid and compelling existential risks that are the stuff of great science fiction stories. In particular, they have a rather odd obsession with AI.

Maybe it’s the overlap with Singularitarians, and their inability to understand that exponentials are not arbitrarily fast; if you just keep projecting the growth in computing power as growing forever, surely eventually we’ll have a computer powerful enough to solve all the world’s problems, right? Well, yeah, I guess… if we can actually maintain the progress that long, which we almost certainly can’t, and if the problems turn out to be computationally tractable at all (the fastest possible computer that could fit inside the observable universe could not brute-force solve the game of Go, though a heuristic AI did just beat one of the world’s best players), and/or if we find really good heuristic methods of narrowing down the solution space… but that’s an awful lot of “if”s.

But AI isn’t what we need to worry about in terms of saving humanity from destruction. Nor is it asteroid impacts; NASA has been doing a good job watching for asteroids lately, and estimates the current risk of a serious impact (by which I mean something like a city-destroyer or global climate shock, not even a global killer) at around 1/10,000 per year. Alien invasion is right out; we can’t even find clear evidence of bacteria on Mars, and the skies are so empty of voices it has been called a paradox. Gamma ray bursts could kill us, and we aren’t sure about the probability of that (we think it’s small?), but much like brain aneurysms, there really isn’t a whole lot we can do to prevent them.

There is one thing that we really need to worry about destroying humanity, and one other thing that could potentially get close over a much longer timescale. The long-range threat is ecological collapse; as global climate change gets worse and the oceans become more acidic and the aquifers are drained, we could eventually reach the point where humanity cannot survive on Earth, or at least where our population collapses so severely that civilization as we know it is destroyed. This might not seem like such a threat, since we would see this coming decades or centuries in advance—but we are seeing it coming decades or centuries in advance, and yet we can’t seem to get the world’s policymakers to wake up and do something about it. So that’s clearly the second-most important existential risk.

But the most important existential risk, by far, no question, is nuclear weapons.

Nuclear weapons are the only foreseeable, preventable means by which humanity could be destroyed in the next twenty minutes.

Yes, that is approximately the time it takes an ICBM to hit its target after launch. There are almost 4,000 ICBMs currently deployed, mostly by the US and Russia. Once we include submarine-launched missiles and bombers, the total number of global nuclear weapons is over 15,000. I apologize for terrifying you by saying that these weapons could be deployed in a moment’s notice to wipe out most of human civilization within half an hour, followed by a global ecological collapse and fallout that would endanger the future of the entire human race—but it’s the truth. If you’re not terrified, you’re not paying attention.

I’ve intentionally linked the Union of Concerned Scientists as one of those sources. Now they are people who understand existential risk. They don’t talk about AI and asteroids and aliens (how alliterative). They talk about climate change and nuclear weapons.

We must stop this. We must get rid of these weapons. Next to that, literally nothing else matters.

“What if we’re conquered by tyrants?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a genocide?” It won’t matter. “What if there is a global economic collapse?” None of these things will matter, if the human race wipes itself out with nuclear weapons.

To speak like an economist for a moment, the utility of a global nuclear war must be set at negative infinity. Any detectable reduction in the probability of that event must be considered worth paying any cost to achieve. I don’t care if it costs $20 trillion and results in us being taken over by genocidal fascists—we are talking about the destruction of humanity. We can spend $20 trillion (actually the US as a whole does every 14 months!). We can survive genocidal fascists. We cannot survive nuclear war.

The good news is, we shouldn’t actually have to pay that sort of cost. All we have to do is dismantle our nuclear arsenal, and get other countries—particularly Russia—to dismantle theirs. In the long run, we will increase our wealth as our efforts are no longer wasted maintaining doomsday machines.

The main challenge is actually a matter of game theory. The surprisingly-sophisticated 1990s cartoon show the Animaniacs basically got it right when they sang: “We’d beat our swords into liverwurst / Down by the East Riverside / But no one wants to be the first!”

The thinking, anyway, is that this is basically a Prisoner’s Dilemma. If the US disarms and Russia doesn’t, Russia can destroy the US. Conversely, if Russia disarms and the US doesn’t, the US can destroy Russia. If neither disarms, we’re left where we are. Whether or not the other country disarms, you’re always better off not disarming. So neither country disarms.

But I contend that it is not, in fact, a Prisoner’s Dilemma. It could be a Stag Hunt; if that’s the case, then only multilateral disarmament makes sense, because the best outcome is if we both disarm, but the worst outcome is if we disarm and they don’t. Once we expect them to disarm, we have no temptation to renege on the deal ourselves; but if we think there’s a good chance they won’t, we might not want to either. Stag Hunts have two stable Nash equilibria; one is where both arm, the other where both disarm.

But in fact, I think it may be simply the trivial game.

There aren’t actually that many possible symmetric two-player nonzero-sum games (basically it’s a question of ordering 4 possibilities, and it’s symmetric, so 12 possible games), and one that we never talk about (because it’s sort of boring) is the trivial game: If I do the right thing and you do the right thing, we’re both better off. If you do the wrong thing and I do the right thing, I’m better off. If we both do the wrong thing, we’re both worse off. So, obviously, we both do the right thing, because we’d be idiots not to. Formally, we say that cooperation is a strictly dominant strategy. There’s no dilemma, no paradox; the self-interested strategy is the optimal strategy. (I find it kind of amusing that laissez-faire economics basically amounts to assuming that all real-world games are the trivial game.)

That is, I don’t think the US would actually benefit from nuking Russia, even if we could do so without retaliation. Likewise, I don’t think Russia would actually benefit from nuking the US. One of the things we’ve discovered—the hardest way possible—through human history is that working together is often better for everyone than fighting. Russia could nuke NATO, and thereby destroy all of their largest trading partners, or they could continue trading with us. Even if they are despicable psychopaths who think nothing of committing mass murder (Putin might be, but surely there are people under his command who aren’t?), it’s simply not in Russia’s best interest to nuke the US and Europe. Likewise, it is not in our best interest to nuke them.

Nuclear war is a strange game: The only winning move is not to play.

So I say, let’s stop playing. Yes, let’s unilaterally disarm, the thing that so many policy analysts are terrified of because they’re so convinced we’re in a Prisoner’s Dilemma or a Stag Hunt. “What’s to stop them from destroying us, if we make it impossible for us to destroy them!?” I dunno, maybe basic human decency, or failing that, rationality?

Several other countries have already done this—South Africa unilaterally disarmed, and nobody nuked them. Japan refused to build nuclear weapons in the first place—and I think it says something that they’re the only people to ever have them used against them.

Our conventional military is plenty large enough to defend us against all realistic threats, and could even be repurposed to defend against nuclear threats as well, by a method I call credible targeted conventional response. Instead of building ever-larger nuclear arsenals to threaten devastation in the world’s most terrifying penis-measuring contest, you deploy covert operatives (perhaps Navy SEALS in submarines, or double agents, or these days even stealth drones) around the world, with the standing order that if they have reason to believe a country initiated a nuclear attack, they will stop at nothing to hunt down and kill the specific people responsible for that attack. Not the country they came from; not the city they live in; those specific people. If a leader is enough of a psychopath to be willing to kill 300 million people in another country, he’s probably enough of a psychopath to be willing to lose 150 million people in his own country. He likely has a secret underground bunker that would allow him to survive, at least if humanity as a whole does. So you should be threatening the one thing he does care about—himself. You make sure he knows that if he pushes that button, you’ll find that bunker, drop in from helicopters, and shoot him in the face.

The “targeted conventional response” should be clear by now—you use non-nuclear means to respond, and you target the particular leaders responsible—but let me say a bit more about the “credible” part. The threat of mutually-assured destruction is actually not a credible one. It’s not what we call in game theory a subgame perfect Nash equilibrium. If you know that Russia has launched 1500 ICBMs to destroy every city in America, you actually have no reason at all to retaliate with your own 1500 ICBMs, and the most important reason imaginable not to. Your people are dead either way; you can’t save them. You lose. The only question now is whether you risk taking the rest of humanity down with you. If you have even the most basic human decency, you will not push that button. You will not “retaliate” in useless vengeance that could wipe out human civilization. Thus, your threat is a bluff—it is not credible.

But if your response is targeted and conventional, it suddenly becomes credible. It’s exactly reversed; you now have every reason to retaliate, and no reason not to. Your covert operation teams aren’t being asked to destroy humanity; they’re being tasked with finding and executing the greatest mass murderer in history. They don’t have some horrific moral dilemma to resolve; they have the opportunity to become the world’s greatest heroes. Indeed, they’d very likely have the whole world (or what’s left of it) on their side; even the population of the attacking country would rise up in revolt and the double agents could use the revolt as cover. Now you have no reason to even hesitate; your threat is completely credible. The only question is whether you can actually pull it off, and if we committed the full resources of the United States military to preparing for this possibility, I see no reason to doubt that we could. If a US President can be assassinated by a lone maniac (and yes, that is actually what happened), then the world’s finest covert operations teams can assassinate whatever leader pushed that button.

This is a policy that works both unilaterally and multilaterally. We could even assemble an international coalition—perhaps make the UN “peacekeepers” put their money where their mouth is and train the finest special operatives in the history of the world tasked with actually keeping the peace.

Let’s not wait for someone else to save humanity from destruction. Let’s be the first.


5 thoughts on “The real Existential Risk we should be concerned about

  1. […] But I worry that this sort of irrational pessimism carries its own risks. First there is the risk of simply giving up, succumbing to learned helplessness and deciding there’s nothing we can possibly do to save ourselves. Second is the risk that we will do something needlessly drastic (like the a radical socialist revolution) that impoverishes or even kills millions of people for no reason. The extreme fear that we are on the verge of ecological collapse could lead people to take a “by any means necessary” stance and end up with a cure worse than the disease. So far the word “ecoterrorism” has mainly been applied to what was really ecovandalism; but if we were in fact on the verge of total civilizational collapse, I can understand why someone would think quite literal terrorism was justified (actually the main reason I don’t is that I just don’t see how it could actually help). Just about anything is worth it to save humanity from destruction. […]


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